HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Greivis Vasquez deserves a raise — which he’ll get in due time — or the key to the city or, heck, just make him mayor of New Orleans.
The city, and its beleaguered basketball team, couldn’t ask for a better ambassador than the Venezuelan-born point guard who’s leaving his heart and sweat on the floor every night as he emerges as a top talent in the league.
“The biggest thing is I’m getting an opportunity,” said Vasquez, a recent player of the week recipient. “Still, people don’t know about me as much because I’m playing in a small market, which I love. I love this city, I love this team.”
Pretty refreshing stuff from a third-year player just starting to hit his stride for a franchise that’s endured it’s share of hard knocks in recent years — including a hard-luck 7-25 start to this season.
Yet as I wrote after Saturday’s 99-96 overtime win at Dallas, the season really started at that moment. Add Monday’s impressive thumping of the San Antonio Spurs in front of 11,599 that ended a seven-game home losing streak, and Wednesday’s fourth-quarter comeback against the previously streaking Houston Rockets, and the Hornets are on a roll with their first three-game winning streak of the season.
Why the reset on the season?
Because the ridiculously youthful Hornets finally got game-changer and now-healthy shooting guard Eric Gordon in the starting lineup Saturday. It allowed coach Monty Williams to make other changes and roll out the starting five he envisioned.
And this is where Vasquez’s ambassadorial value comes shining through. A 6-foot-6, bearded jolt of energy, smiles, enthusiasm and positivity, his team-first attitude is absolutely contagious. It’s critical to the evolution of this franchise, and no more so than as it relates to Gordon, the 6-foot-3 scoring machine deemed the future of the franchise when New Orleans acquired him in the painful CP3 trade 13 months ago.
“I have a good relationship with Eric and I tell you this, we have been talking a lot,” Vasquez said before Saturday’s comeback victory. “Eric is a pro. I feel him as a player too, because his knee was really bothering him. But now he feels like his teammates got his back, we all got his back. We all know he’s going to make us better and we’re going to make him better. And now, we talked [Friday] night, we’re going to make this situation a great situation. We’re going to start winning games.
“For a guy like that to say that to a guy like me, that means a lot. I’m sure he’s saying that on behalf of the whole team because we’re winners, we want to win and we work. And that has been the main thing of our team, we’re going to work regardless. Whether we lose or win tomorrow we are getting better because our vision is in the future.”
Winners of four of six, the Hornets go for four in a row as they close out their homestand Friday against the Kevin Love-less Timberwolves.
Just six months ago, Gordon’s vision wasn’t fixed on NOLA. He tried to force his way out last offseason as a restricted free agent by practically insisting the franchise not match the Phoenix Suns’ four-year, $58 million offer sheet. But New Orleans stood firm and matched. Then Gordon tried the patience of an already suspicious fan base when he announced before training camp that a setback with his lingering knee injury would keep him sidelined. He played in just nine games with New Orleans last season.
Finally, Gordon made his debut this season on Dec. 29, four days after his 24th birthday. He played two games and took the next one off to rest his knee. In his third game back, Saturday night at Dallas, he joined the starting lineup and scored the Hornets’ final eight points in overtime for what might prove to be a momentous victory.
In Monday’s win over the Spurs, Gordon scored 24 points. After the Dallas game, Gordon, soft-spoken and humble, said he is committed to New Orleans.
“I’m not here to worry about any negativity from a lot of things that have occurred,” Gordon said. “I was injured and there’s nothing I could do about that. Fans and other people can say what they want, but I’m here to win.”
Williams, the Hornets’ 41-year-old coach who has kept his team clawing despite constant adversity, said he believes Gordon’s invested in the long haul.
“I’ve talked to him on a number of occasions about the things from the past,” Williams said. “He knows how I feel; I know how he feels and that’s what I have to go off of. It’s not always going to be — I don’t know, whatever you want to call it — a fairy tale, but Eric is a good kid and he wants to do what’s right. I try to put myself in his shoes and try to think of the things I did at 22 and 23. I’m just glad you didn’t have social media back then because you guys would look at me totally differently.
“So, I think when you have a guy like Eric, who has that much talent, a really good guy, you try to go forward with that instead of dwelling on the past. What happened happened, you can’t get around that, but all the signs point to him being committed to our team and that’s a good thing.”
And why not? Forget about what New Orleans’ 10-25 record will have you believe. This thing is just building and the Suns (12-25), Kings (13-22), Mavs (13-23) and — dare I say? — the Lakers (15-20) might want to watch out from below. The season-long cellar-dwelling Hornets’ starting lineup averages under 23, with Greivis being the elder statesman at 25, and confidence is a new word only now starting to bubble up to describe this group.
The Greivis-Gordon backcourt has the potential to be dynamite. Greivis ranks third in the league in assists at 9.1 a game — on a team that ranks 28th in scoring — behind Rajon Rondo (11.2) and a whisker behind Paul (9.3). He’s averaging 14.1 points a game — 18.9 in his last eight games — and shooting 39.4 percent from the beyond the arc.
“Playing with a 2-guard like that, he’s going to get me more assists,” Greivis said of Gordon. “He’s going to open the floor a lot more because guys are going to be worried about him.”
No. 1 pick Anthony Davis has had his ups and downs and is now part of a starting frontcourt with Al-Farouq Aminu and Robin Lopez. Ryan Anderson slides into a potent sixth-man role, heading a bench that also includes Jason Smith, Brian Roberts and No. 10 pick Austin Rivers, who could potentially thrive in a reduced role and, with it, decreased pressure to produce.
So where’s it all headed? Allow Vasquez to take it from here.
“I tell you, we have this vision that we are going to be a great team, and that takes some time,” he said, comparing the Hornets’ beginnings to that of a young and once-struggling Oklahoma City outfit. “In the NBA, it’s too cruel, it’s cold-blooded. You’ve got to understand that you have to have really a strong mindset because it’s not going to be easy. We’re going through that.
“Obviously our record doesn’t look like we’re going to make the playoffs this year, but being realistic, we’re planning on going to the playoffs. That’s our future — being one of the top teams in the West.”
Who’s to say Ambassador Vasquez is wrong?